The most memorable boxing movie heroes pack their own wallop of masochistic rage, the need to not merely inflict pain but feel it. It’s part of the movie boxer’s psyche, fuel for the fire that drives a character into the ring and makes him behave self-destructively outside it.
The latest off-the-rails pugilist is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope. He grew up a Hell’s Kitchen orphan, and he scratched, clawed and punched his way to riches by using his fists. He’s blunt about the fact that he needs the pain and the rage. Then he learns to live without them when real life kicks him around the block a few times.
In a recent phone interview Gyllenhaal asked the movie’s key question: “How do you protect, how do you defend, and what is your identity without rage? Our world teaches us often that masculinity is about toughness and strength, and I think that can be misinterpreted as anger.”
Southpaw isn’t a great movie, but it hits most of its marks. That’s more than you can say for the real-world boxing game of late. The recent, ballyhooed Mayweather/Pacquiao bout was widely panned by fight fans as a featherweight affair. The real passion now surrounds boxing’s brutal MMA cousin, which now sports a superstar female fighter (Ronda Rousey) and even some strong movies (including 2011’s Warrior).
The best boxing movies stay in close to that masochism theme and find different ways for their antiheroes to punish themselves. The gold standard remains Raging Bull(1980), Martin Scorsese’s searing portrait of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta (for which Robert De Niro won his only leading acting Oscar).
De Niro’s LaMotta is a study in self-laceration, in the ring and in life. He postpones the gratification of sex with his girlfriend by pouring ice water down his underwear. He takes ridiculous beatings in the ring and then brags that he didn’t get knocked down. He makes the wrong decisions whenever possible, and ends up in prison literally beating his head against the wall. Scorsese conjures LaMotta’s world as a private inferno, a hell to which he’s firmly committed.
But the boxer’s masochism can take more subtle forms as well. John Huston’s Fat Cityis one of the great overlooked gems of the genre, a grimy look at fictional small-town California palooka Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) as he shows the ropes to a young protégée (a 21-year-old Jeff Bridges).
Tully inflicts his self-abuse on a bar stool, where he spends most days and nights talking about how he’s ready to get back in shape and recapture what little glory he once enjoyed. He drinks to numb the pain and to bring it. He tears himself down outside the ring, then takes the rest of his beating on the ropes.
Like Raging Bull, Fat City is fiercely, doggedly unromantic in its approach to the boxer’s life.Southpaw is more standard issue: The glamour, the fall and the redemption; the crusty old trainer (Forest Whitaker) and the kid (Oona Laurence) who provides a larger purpose.
But Billy Hope is still kindred spirits with Jake LaMotta and Billy Tully. They all need to feel the impact of life’s sting. They need to take it in at least as much as they dish it out.